[This is a short version of a book ‘Terror and the Police State; Punishment as a Measure of Despair’, published in 2015. The book focussed on France after 1789, Russia after 1917, and Germany after 1933. The instalments will follow the 21 chapter headings that are as follows: 1 Terms of Engagement; 2 Enduring emergency; 3 Righteousness; 4 Good bye to the law; 5 Instruments of terror; 6 Civil war; 7 Waves of terror; 8 Degradation; 9 Secret police; 10 Surveillance; 11 Denunciation; 12 Fear; 13 Popular courts and show trials; 14 Scapegoats, suspicion and proof; 15 Gulags; 16 Propaganda, religion, and cults; 17 Surrealism and banality; 19 The horror; 20 The meaning?; 21 Justification. The short version is about one quarter the length of the original. Each instalment is about 1200 words.]
Some governments nowadays are keen to distinguish between detention centres and prisons. They commonly want to make this distinction when they are at some kind of war with people trying to claim refuge in their country. The government wants to assert that the attempted entry by the claimed refugee is illegal, but they do not want to say that people have been sent to prison because they have been found guilty by a court of breaking the law – because they have not been. And for good reason, the regime does not want to have these people appear in their courts. So, they say that these people are simply being held in detention, like naughty boys after a bad class, or foreign or suspected persons who are interned during a real war. The immediate effect on a person inside a prison or detention centre is the same – the person has lost his or her liberty, the right that we regard as our most fundamental right.
In the period between 1789 and 1794, many people in France lost their liberty as a result of allegations made against them, and after the Law of Suspects was passed, many of those people lost their liberty simply because some allegation had been made, and without any intervention by a court. As we saw, up to 300,000 may have been so detained.
The word gulag entered the appalled consciousness of the West with the publication in 1973 of The Gulag Archipelago of Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Its impact was for many as great as the uncovering of the evils of the Reich. It is fair to say that most people in the West have not been able to come to grips with the enormity or the horror of either.
The word Gulag was an acronym for the Soviet agency that ran the forced labour camps during the time of Stalin, but has since come to stand for the entire scheme of detention and forced labour. For much of its life, it was run by the NKVD. A large part of its population consisted of political prisoners and many were there without any judicial intervention. In any event, Russia has never had a proper judiciary or even understood what the phrase ‘rule of law’ means. The conditions in most were horrific – the inmates were cruelly treated, underfed, under-clothed, over-worked, exposed to the cold and all the elements, and subject to disease, and they were not aided when disease struck.
The estimates of the numbers who passed through the Gulag or died in it vary greatly because of the hugeness of the numbers involved. Major population centres and infrastructure projects were built with what was in truth slave labour, and over the bones of those killed in the process. As the Germans advanced in their invasion, the NKVD massacred many prisoners in order to prevent the Germans getting their hands on their labour. The population in these camps at any one time may have exceeded ten million. Unlike their Nazi counterparts, they had no camps set up for extermination only, but their numbers far exceeded those of the Germans.
Dachau in operation was shown in the German film The Ninth Day (Der Neunte Tag). The fact that Dachau was not a death camp, as that term would come to be known, should not diminish its evil in our eyes. Its inmates were not what we would call a threat to anyone, but they were all at the mercy of the terrorism of a vicious and amoral police state. The guards came from the dregs of German society and on top of their natural envy and the need to strike back at the world, they were trained to hate those in their charge, many of whom would have been their social betters on the outside, such as the very many Jesuit priests, and any residue of humanity was drained from them.
The Germans then drew up elaborate rules of Byzantine complexity and cruelty which would provide a legal shield for the underlings and their cruel and small minds. There was a kind of ghastly veneer of Teutonic order. No matter what the previous position of a prisoner had been, they were all entirely within the power of the SS. The SS operatives had no compunction in using and abusing that power to the full. The wonder of it is that the suicide rate was not so much higher.
The regulations of the camps could have been written by Satan. Prisoners who spoke of politics to incite others or arouse dread of the regime were to be hanged. Sabotage or mutiny was dealt with less severely – those offenders were shot. Other penalties included solitary, bread and water, lashing in public, being tied to a post, or withholding of mail. Being put into ‘arrest’ in solitary in winter was often as good as a death sentence.
What kind of people just leave other people to freeze and starve to death? How did they account for their work to their family over dinner at home at night? What was it like to go daily between their own domestic peace at home and howling hell on earth in the camp over the way? On one occasion at Sachsenhausen, an inmate trying to escape was badly beaten, then nailed into a wooden box, and then left there in the view of everyone for a week – until he died.
Each additional punishment – at the arbitrary will of morally deranged guards – carried an extension of the sentence, minutely and precisely reported in the books of record of the camp. Most inmates would later say that the uncertainty about the length of their sentence was the heaviest load that they had to carry. If you go to jail, you at least know your maximum time inside.
Every prisoner had to wear an inverted triangle on the left breast – black for asocial, green for professional criminal, red for political, violet for Jehovah’s Witness, pink for a homosexual. Jewish prisoners were usually assigned to political, but had to wear an additional yellow triangle to form the Star of David. They would typically be welcomed by being struck with truncheons or rifle butts as they were forced to run in, and the SS commandant might welcome them in these terms: ‘You’re not prison inmates here, serving a sentence imposed by the courts, you’re just ‘prisoners’ pure and simple, and if you don’t know what that means you will soon find out. You’re dishonourable and defenceless! You’re without rights! Your fate is a slave’s fate! Amen.’
Sachsenhausen was infamous for two inhuman enterprises. One was a brickworks which was to help rebuild Berlin. The conditions were frightful. They were manned by those on a Strafkommando, or punishment detail. You could expect to survive for three months. The record was 28 dead and over 50 injured in a day. Many were shot ‘while trying to escape’. Others were just flung into the water while barges were being loaded and then used for target practice for the SS. At best you had just the work: ‘Smoke, dust, and dense fog poisoned the air, whilst the deafening sound of clanging hammers, clattering chains and wheels, rattling machinery and the shrill whistles of the foreman prevailed from morning to evening….Soon my hands and face were covered in burns, breathing became difficult, the scorching heat made every movement torturous….It still puzzles me how I survived.’ This form of Hell was preferred for those wearing a pink triangle. They were called the ‘175ers’ for the part of the Penal Code dealing with homosexuality.
The other inhuman enterprise – breaking in boots – was worse. We are for the most part speaking of the conduct of people toward their own nationals, and, in two cases, people from two of the most civilised nations in the world. If it matters, most of the thousands or millions of victims had not been convicted of any criminal offence. How thin, then, is this veneer of humanity, much less civilisation, that we so glibly wear?